And here we go…..
The Journey South
“Tell me of where you come from,” Kane bade a tired Nathan as soon as they had time alone.
Things had started going downhill the moment they’d left Rook Mountain. Air power had been diverted to support another mission, leaving Snake Eyes and his men awaiting one of the slow-moving armored personnel carriers. It had taken almost a day for it to reach them. Matters had grown worse form there. The APC had been first to go. They’d begun having trouble with the engines less than a kilometer from the mountain, and it was still spitting out heavy streams of black smoke. Snake Eyes was still kicking and cursing hours after everything had gone wrong.
They’d found an easily defended shelter for the night in a thick rock outcropping just a few clicks shy of Fulcrum’s Outlook, a forbidding spire winding high in the sky. It was an old legend that you could see all of Helscape from the top. In truth, it had once been a sliver of a mountain equal to the might of Rook Mountain. A terrible war between wizards caused it to shatter. Now, all that remained was a thin spike to remind them all of the terrible power the ancient wizards had possessed and how that power had caused them to lose their own humanity in the process.
Nathan shifted uneasily from the placidity of this stranger’s question. The subject bothered him for reasons he wasn’t willing to think on at the moment. Since he’d regained consciousness, he’d been under a constant bombardment of questions from this one and most of the soldiers. All he wanted to do now was go home and sleep the experience off. His biggest regret came from the decision to follow the monster.
“What do you want to know? Are you some kind of intelligence officer? Want to know everything about my world so you can invade it? Or do you just want to study us for a while at your leisure?”
His words were harsh, and they did indeed sting Kane, but the Slayer let them fall away. He stared at Nathan, hoping that the hate inside wasn’t going to tear him apart before he could learn more.
“Okay, fair’s fair, I suppose,” Nathan agreed. “I live in a place far different from all of this. Our monsters are people. But not anymore. Now we can’t even feel safe in our own homes because of monsters from your world! A world that, by all rights, shouldn’t be possible. And just what in the hell was that? You owe me that much, at least.”
Kane stood abruptly and gathered himself. “I think I will leave you for now. But do remember one thing during your stay here. Nothing in your world is comparable to what the Berserkers have done here. Good night, Mr. Bourne.”
“You didn’t answer my question. Is everyone here so afraid of what those things are?”
The faint howl of the wind was his answer. Digging through his pockets and mumbling a curse, Nathan watched the slim man stalk off. Relief and disappointment overcame him in the same instant when he opened his pack of cigarettes to find only one left. He really needed to go home.
He welcomed the smoke as an old friend, inhaling deep and taking the time to look around for the first real time. There was nothing to see, not for the endless miles stretching out around him. Damned world. This was far worse than those seven months in Iraq. At least there, he’d had a mission. There was nothing here for him. Not a damn thing. Then again, that seemed to be the way his life was taking him. Everything was undefined and probably had been for quite some time. He’d been too blind to see it. Resigned to whatever fate had in store for him, Nathan leaned against one of the smoother rocks he found and enjoyed the flavor of his last smoke.
Day broke much sooner than any of them cared for. It was compounded by the lack of sleep and fears of being stranded this far out. They hadn’t dared move during the night, not in the lumbering track that was down to its last legs. For some reason, Snake went on to explain, Imperium technology wasn’t able to pick up Berserker movements in the night. They were the universe’s superior military force, both in the quality of the soldiers they enlisted and the caliber of their equipment, yet they failed to detect the slightest of movements.
Snake Eyes let them rest. They deserved that much. He also posted a three-man guard throughout the entire night, the troopers rotating shifts every two hours. The next-day effects were depressing. Anyone who’d ever worn a uniform and put in their time in the trenches could attest to that. He couldn’t care less if they slept or not. That was secondary to keeping the wounded alive. Too many troopers died of carelessness rather than from wounds sustained in combat. He had three who were still clinging on, and it was all he could do to keep them alive until they reached Fort Evans. It was a small comfort to know he was doing some good, but it was enough to let him sleep peacefully during the long Helscape nights.
The track lurched to life again, sputtering and choking, and they were off. Fort Evans was more than two days away, providing they had enough power left. Snake Eyes made it his mission to make as many people unhappy as possible once they returned. They’d been ordered into harm’s way and forced to find their own way home. There was nothing you could say to convince him of that one.
He soon found his thoughts leading towards the impending invasion and the man chosen to lead it. Joneth Pierce had a reputation far exceeding his reach. He was the man who’d led less than five hundred against an enemy force of over five thousand and came out of it with prisoners. There weren’t many, but they were the entire enemy left alive. His brilliance on End’s Eye and the winter campaign had propelled him through the ranks, making him a powerful force in the Imperium military. His very name inspired hope in the hearts of his troops and deep-felt fear in those of his foes. Pierce had yet to lose a major battle, and it was for that reason he was coming to Helscape. There was no doubt in Snake’s mind that they’d all be home within half a year.
“Got an extra one of those?” Nathan asked him, deciding to try to learn more about his captors and smooth out the language differences. “You know, I was in the military once. Even made it to sergeant before I got out. Went to war in pretty much the same kind of place. It wasn’t pretty then, either. What’s out here worth fighting for?”
Snake offered him a smoke and smirked. “I’ve been asking myself that same question for the last two years.”
“I guess it all comes down to life. Most of these civilians don’t have the means to protect themselves and are too stubborn to pick up and head for safety. Can’t say as I blame them, though. I don’t think I’d want to give up my life and start a new one.” He fell silent for a time, letting Nathan think on what he’d said.
“This all started out as an easy place to conquer and set up as a staging area for the war, but I don’t think there are many left here who remember that. Most of the original ones are long dead. What we’re doing here is keeping a way of life for these people. I didn’t come here by choice, and I sure hate this place, but I’ve been here too long to leave now. Do you know what it’s like to look into a mother’s eyes after you’ve saved her child? That’s why I’m still here.”
Nathan was surprised to find himself starting to like a few of these soldiers. Though they were all bipedal, few of them could be classified as human. The strange man with the yellow fur and dark spots was constantly watching him with a glare that was suspicious and dangerous. The primate medic, though, held no such reservations, making good use of his time as squad medic to learn as much as he could from Nathan. Then there was the blue-skinned female who never stopped cracking jokes at her fellows. Nathan was shocked to learn that she was one of the best troopers in the entire company.
Around them, he felt oddly at ease, as if he were a part of them. It wouldn’t take much to slip back into his former military persona, despite only having been among this group for a few days. Nathan decided that might be the best approach, in lieu of actually trying to figure out why he was here and not back on Earth. Kane and the sergeant gave off different vibes. Nathan refused to trust either of them. Always present was the thought of going home. Home. He didn’t know how he was going to make that happen or when.
He laughed and exchanged war stories with the troops and kept an eye on how the other two reacted. The slim man didn’t seem to care. He spent the break period with the track but chose to range ahead and around while the track was moving. His only real need was to fill up his canteens and check on Nathan. Snake, on the other hand, soon grew weary of answering questions and started treating Nathan like one of the privates.
By the time the steel gray walls of Fort Evans and Minion came into view, Nathan knew as little of those two as when he’d first arrived. Both were dangerous and obviously hiding their individual agendas, but he didn’t have time to dwell on it. He watched the bustle of activity, military and civilian, and knew that his adventure was just beginning.
The midday suns made things almost unbearable, even in the civilized parts of the Wastelands. It was a daily ritual, most citizens finding shelter and refuge inside. It never kept the soldiers at the nearby base from doing their duties, and it wasn’t about to deter the lone woman with flaming red hair riding past the outskirts of Minion now. Emerald Razorback had about her the haggard look of one who’d seen too much combat and had been on the road for a long time, but she wore it with pride.
She’d been born some forty-odd years ago and was still in the prime of her youth. The average life expectancy on Helscape, barring an untimely demise, was close to two hundred years. Hers was a life of constant sorrow however, though she did what she could to make things as good as could be for herself. Her mother had died during childbirth, and her father was long believed dead. She’d grown up an orphan, like so many others in this place, and it had served to make her stronger. The life of the Slayer had soon appealed to her, and she’d fast become one of the most accomplished in their storied history.
Her clothes were dust-covered, hair plastered down and clinging to her sweaty body. She was in need of a good bath and a strong drink. A good man for a little bit of recreation wouldn’t hurt, either, she mused. A flight of Imperium choppers sped by. Two were cargo and the rest assault birds. She shook her head at their futile attempt to save lives already lost.
Her emerald green eyes shot icy stares into Minion, subtle enough yet overpowering to those criminals with weak convictions. She’d already made it past the outer defense wall, a massive structure going deep into the ground in the effort to protecting the people from Berserker attacks, and was heading into the inner city where the crime rate was the worst. The wall did its job to standard, but the local security force left much to be desired.
Old folk wasting their days sat on their front stoops watching her go by. They were already prejudging her, as most people did. Prostitute, some whispered, while others found their opinions changing upon the revealing of her impressive weaponry. A Slayer, was she? Just like that fella over in the Dead Shot Inn. What an odd one he was, they said. Debates carried on long after she was gone. Not even the old timers had ever seen so many professional killers in one place before. Their thoughts soon turned towards the impending invasion and how it might affect their own diminishing lives.
She laughed at their innocence and rode on. Most of them would never know what is was like to let the winds blow through their hair in the open desert, never know what it was like to actually live free. Free from the worries of attack. Free from the pains of death. Instead, they chose to live their lives behind these walls and die without ever having experienced life. This was the one reason she felt sorrow for them. They were all too afraid to live.
At last arriving at the same inn she always stayed in, she slid from the saddle and took the time to stretch her aching joints while the stable boy came and took her horse for a copper. Entering the grand great room, she quickly made herself at home. The room key was handed over, and there she found it right to toss aside her bags and strip down before slumping exhausted on the bed. She soon found herself giggling like a schoolgirl as she ran her arms over the linen. It was so smooth and soft, a harsh opposite from her daily life. Now all she needed was a long, hot bath, and she’d be all right. The first part of her quest was complete, though the hardest parts still lay before her. But there would be time for that later. She groaned with a smile as her foot slipped into the steaming waters of the bath.